Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Houston 31, Temple 10

The Cougars managed back-to-back victories for the first time this season, getting past the Temple Owls in an oftentimes-sloppy game last Friday night at TDECU Stadium.

The Good: The "Third Ward Defense" continues to be a turnover-creating machine. They savaged Owl quarterback P.J. Walker for three interceptions, one of which was run back for a touchdown by Trevon Stewart, and denied the Owls another touchdown by forcing a goal-line fumble. On the other side of the ball, Greg Ward, Jr. seems to be settling into his new job as quarterback. Ward was remarkably efficient, completing 29 of 33 passes for 268 yards and two touchdowns. He, along with running backs Ryan Jackson and Kenneth Farrow, also managed a healthy 171 yards and one TD on the ground.

The Bad: The Houston defense gave up a couple of big plays to Temple wide receiver Jahad Thomas, who had gains of 74 and 72 yards on a pair of well-executed screen plays. Neither play resulted in a touchdown - the Houston defense held Temple to a field goal the first time and forced the aforementioned goal-line fumble the second time - but I can't help but wonder if the absences of cornerback Lee Hightower and linebacker Derrick Mathews, both of whom sustained season-ending injuries last week, played a part in those big plays. Kicker Kyle Bullard continued to struggle, as one of his field goal attempts hit the uprights. And that offensive line... Ugh!

The Ugly: The game was marred by penalties: Temple was flagged 11 times for 93 yards and the Cougars were penalized 10 times for 102 yards. Several Houston penalties resulted in stalled offensive drives, including two holding penalties that negated what would have been excellent Kenneth Farrow runs. Honestly, the Cougars should have scored more than 31 points in this game, and probably could have if they had not kept shooting themselves in the foot with penalties on offense.

What it Means: Houston is now above .500 for the first time this season and is 2-1 in conference. They are technically still in the hunt for the AAC title, but they'll need some help to get there.

The Cougars get a week off before traveling to Tampa to take on the South Florida Bulls.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Houston 28, Memphis 24

After falling behind by two touchdowns early in the game, the Cougars rallied back in the second half to manage a rarity under the Tony Levine regime: a road win over a favored team.

The Good: Houston's defense forced five turnovers, including two critical ones late in the game which kept Memphis from potentially taking the lead. Greg Ward, making his first start at quarterback, passed for 188 yards and a touchdown and rush for 95 yards and a touchdown, including a 64-yard scramble in the second quarter to get the Coogs on the board.

The Bad: As Matt Jackson notes, much of Houston's offensive gains were the result of Greg Ward's ability to improvise when plays break down. He is getting no protection from the Coogs' paper-thin offensive line. Special teams are abysmal; they fumbled a kickoff that led to an easy Memphis score, and Kyle Bullard missed his only field goal attempt of the night.

The Ugly: Two of Houston's better defensive players: cornerback Lee Hightower and linebacker Derrick Mathews, were injured during the game and will miss the remainder of the season. That's a huge hit to a defense that has been the team's lone strength this season.

What it Means: This was a big win for the Coogs, who reach the halfway point of the 2014 season with a 3-3 record.

Next up for the Coogs are the Temple Owls, who come to town for a Friday night ESPN game at TDECU Stadium.

Erasure at Bayou Music Center

I rarely go to concerts, but given that Erasure is one of my favorite bands - yes, I admit it - and given that I hadn't seen them in concert since the mid-'90s, my attendance at their concert at the Bayou Music Center last Saturday evening was pretty much mandatory. (I actually attended two concerts last weekend: the ex-wife [!] dragged me to the Toyota Center to see Katy Perry [!!] on Friday night.)

The veteran British synthpop duo was playing two nights in Houston as a part of a tour supporting their latest album, The Violet Flame, and they did play a handful of songs from that album. Their set, however, was dominated by hits from their mid-'80s-to-early-'90s heyday. Which is perfectly fine: that's what the crowd, which skewed fortysomething, came to came to dance and sing along to, and they did not leave disappointed.

In contrast to the elaborate productions that past Erasure tours were known for, this show was rather stripped-down: no sets, no props, no fancy costumes or dancers; just Vince Clarke at his laptop and keyboard (he played an acoustic guitar for a few songs), Andy Bell at the microphone, and a couple of backup singers. And again, that was perfectly fine.

As somebody who occasionally gets grief for liking Erasure - people tell me that synthpop "sucks," that Vince Clarke's compositions are formulaic bubblegum, that Erasure is a "gay" band (whatever that means) - I found it extremely enjoyable to be able to sit in a venue with thousands of like-minded fans singing along to "Star" or "A Little Respect." Maybe it's nostalgia, but they have created some truly classic songs.

Alas, before I knew it, the concert was over. And that's my one gripe: their set was barely 90 minutes long. I wish they could have gone another thirty minutes or so. It's not like they were running out of great songs to include in the setlist; they only played one song apiece from Wonderland and I Say I Say I Say, and nothing at all from Cowboy (one of their better albums IMHO) or the Crackers International EP.

The length of the show aside, I had a great time. These guys always put on a good performance; age has not diminished Andy's vocal chops or his ability to work the crowd in the least. Hopefully Vince and Andy will make their way back to Houston soon, with a slightly longer setlist.

Chris Gray's Houston Press review of the concert is here.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Houston 12, Central Florida 17

Last Thursday's game was the first time the Cougars were held without an offensive touchdown since a 50-3 loss to Michigan in 2003. Houston had a late chance to win the game; however, while reaching out for what would have been the go-ahead touchdown with about half a minute left, Greg Ward fumbled the ball through the endzone, securing the victory for Central Florida.

The Good: Kyle Bullard accounted for all of Houston's points by hitting field goals of 39, 42, 51 and 49 yards; he had no misses. The Cougar defense held Central Florida to 10 first downs and 228 yards for the game; the two touchdowns they gave up were the result of being put in bad field position by the offense.

The Bad: Where to begin? John O'Korn's performance at quarterback - he completed only 12 of 28 passes for 98 yards, was intercepted twice, and was flagged for a personal foul penalty on the second play of the game - was so abysmal that he was benched in the second half in favor of Greg Ward (who isn't even the second-string QB on the depth chart). The receivers dropped way too many catchable passes; Deontay Greenberry had a particularly bad night in that regard. Central Florida dominated the Cougars at the line of scrimmage, and the Cougars were flagged 11 times for 99 penalty yards.

The Ugly:  That set the tone for the evening. Sometimes I wonder if offensive coordinator Travis Bush is actually calling plays, or if he just has a trained monkey pull plays out of a hat for him. For example, early in the game the Cougars found themselves with first and goal at UCF's two yard line. However, a truly ridiculous set of play calls, along with poor offensive execution, meant that the Cougars came away with no points. That set the tone for the evening, at least until Greg Ward came in and gave the offense a much-needed spark by playing what amounted to sandlot football.

What it Means: At this point, it's clear that Travis Bush, and very probably head coach Tony Levine, are in over their heads. Unless they can turn things around - quickly - one or both of them will likely be unemployed by seasons' end.

Next up for Houston is a trip to Memphis. I can't say I'm optimistic about that one.

Are lanes on urban streets too wide?

The typical width of a lane on a highway or freeway is twelve feet. That might be fine for higher speed traffic in rural areas, but Jeff Speck argues that it's too wide for streets in urban areas, and that urban traffic lanes should be no more than ten feet in width. Speck points the finger at traffic engineers, who have designed urban streets using geometries meant for highways because they think it is safer for motorists:
Why do they do this? Because they believe that wider lanes are safer. And in this belief, they are dead wrong. Or, to be more accurate, they are wrong, and thousands of Americans are dead.

They are wrong because of a fundamental error that underlies the practice of traffic engineering—and many other disciplines—an outright refusal to acknowledge that human behavior is impacted by its environment. This error applies to traffic planning, as state DOTs widen highways to reduce congestion, in compete ignorance of all the data proving that new lanes will be clogged by the new drivers that they invite. And it applies to safety planning, as traffic engineers, designing for the drunk who's texting at midnight, widen our city streets so that the things that drivers might hit are further away.

The logic is simple enough, and makes reasonable sense when applied to the design of high-speed roads. Think about your behavior when you enter a highway. If you are like me, you take note of the posted speed limit, set your cruise control for 5 m.p.h. above that limit, and you're good to go. We do this because we know that we will encounter a consistent environment free of impediments to high-speed travel. Traffic engineers know that we will behave this way, and that is why they design highways for speeds well above their posted speed limits.

Unfortunately, trained to expect this sort of behavior, highway engineers apply the same logic to the design of city streets, where people behave in an entirely different way. On city streets, most drivers ignore posted speed limits, and instead drive the speed at which they feel safe. That speed is set by the cues provided by the environment. Are there other cars near me? Is an intersection approaching? Can I see around that corner? Are there trees and buildings near the road? Are there people walking or biking nearby? And: How wide is my lane?

All of these factors matter, and others, too. The simplest one to discuss, and probably the most impactful, is lane width. When lanes are built too wide, many bad things happen. In a sentence: pedestrians are forced to walk further across streets on which cars are moving too fast and bikes don't fit.
Speck goes on to lay out the case for narrower traffic lanes on city streets. He points out that the AASHTO "Green Book," which guides the geometric design of streets and roadways, says that 10-foot lanes are acceptable in urban areas, and cites studies showing that narrower lanes are no more dangerous, and in some cases safer, than standard 12-foot lanes in terms of accident rates. He argues that wider lanes cause motorists to drive faster, which results in accidents that cause more injuries and deaths than accidents that occur at lower speeds. Speck maintains that narrower lanes do not impede traffic flow in urban areas and that re-striping urban streets from 12-foot lanes to 10-foot lanes will make them safer for pedestrians as well as create enough extra space for buffered bike lanes.

Speck's arguments are ones I have heard before and generally agree with. In my experience, however, the most ardent proponents of wider lanes are not traffic engineers, but fire departments, who insist that their apparatus can only be safely handled by 12-foot lanes (and indeed, the comments to Speck's article make note of this). There's also the issue of semi trucks and buses being able to safely turn from narrower lanes. And, to be honest, I sometimes feel more comfortable by the extra space that those 12-foot lanes provide between myself and the moron in the Tahoe or F-250 next to me who is talking on his cell phone and not paying attention to the guy in the lane next to him. 

Which brings up a point: at the end of the day drivers are responsible for their own behavior, including the ability to safely navigate down streets, regardless of lane width.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Houston 47, Nevada - Las Vegas 14

The Cougars took care of business at TDECU stadium last Saturday night, and ended their non-conference schedule with a 2-2 record.

The Good:  The Cougar offense finally got the ground game going, racking up 399 total rushing yards. RB Ryan Jackson had 147 yards on 13 carries, RB Kenneth Farrow had 113 yards and 14 carries, and four of Houston's six touchdowns came on runs. The UH defense, meanwhile, held the Rebels to 16 first downs the entire game and intercepted UNLV three times.

The Bad: QB John O'Korn threw two interceptions, and receivers are still dropping catchable balls. Kicker Kyle Bullard missed an extra point. And why are the Cougars fair-catching punts inside their own ten yard line?

The Ugly: Too many penalties detracted from the overall quality of the game. Houston was flagged nine times for 110 yards and UNLV had 11 flags for 105 yards. Also, although it worked to Houston's advantage, the humidity's effect on the UNLV players was brutal. The Rebel players simply couldn't adjust from the dry desert air of Las Vegas to the steamy conditions of a Houston September night, and were dropping like flies from cramps in the second half.

What it Means: Houston finally gets its first win of the season over an FBS opponent, although nobody is going to mistake UNLV for a good team. A better, and more important, test for the Cougars comes a week from Thursday, when they host the Central Florida Golden Knights.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Houston 25, BYU 33

The 25th-ranked Blue Cougars got the better of the Red Cougars in Provo, Utah last Thursday evening.

The Good: What started out looking like a blowout - BYU led Houston 23-0 at one point in the second quarter - actually turned into a competitive game when the Coogs scored fifteen unanswered points, including a 45-yard hail mary strike from John O'Korn to Daniel Spencer at the end of the first half. This scoring opportunity was created after the Houston recovered a BYU fumble. O'Korn, for his part, actually had a decent night, completing 30 of 57 passes for 307 yards and three touchdowns. The UH defense, meanwhile, was able to regroup after falling behind early and hold a potent BYU offense to 10 points in the second half. Although QB Taysom Hill had a relatively good night against Houston, he was also sacked four times and intercepted twice. Houston did not turn the ball over the entire night.

The Bad: The Houston rushing attack continues to be non-existent against FBS competition, managing only 10 rushing yards the entire night. The lack of a running game, along with O'Korn's 27 incomplete passes, made for a horribly inefficient UH offense: they managed only 18 first downs the entire night, while BYU managed 32. The Cougar defense, meanwhile, was torched for 323 BYU rushing yards: Taysom Hill ran for 160 yards, while Jamaal Williams ran for 139.

The Ugly: The safety Houston gave up early in the game was both poorly-called and poorly-executed. Kicker Kyle Bullard had a rough night, missing two extra points and a field goal attempt. And the UH offensive line continues to be an absolute disaster.

What it Means: This one could have been a lot worse; honestly, one gets the sense that BYU became unfocused and let their foot off the gas when they jumped out to such a large early lead. That being said, the Coogs played respectably in a game nobody expected them to win.

Next up for Houston is UNLV at TDECU Stadium on Saturday.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

In other local sports news...

Congratulations to the Astros, who will manage not to lose 100 games for the first time since the 2010 season. The Astros' success this year, if you can call it that, was not enough to save the job of manager Bo Porter. Apparently it wasn't the Astros' win-loss record so much as it was tension between him and general manager Jeff Luhnow that cost him his job after less than two seasons. I was skeptical of the Porter hire at the time - I felt the Astros were in such dire condition that they needed a manager with more experience - but I wish him the best nevertheless. The Astros' next manager will hopefully be somebody with experience as well as the ability to see eye-to-eye with team management.

The Texans, meanwhile, proved me wrong by opening their 2014 season with a 16-7 victory over the  Redskins last Sunday, to notch their first regular-season victory in 51 weeks. The Redskins are awful, mind you, so I'm not prepared to declare the team's troubles over, but hopefully they'll do better than 2-14 this fall. The talent is definitely there on defense - it's not hyperbole to call J.J. Wat the best defensive player in the entire NFL - but the squad needs to stay healthy. In that regard, the injury to first-round draft pick Jadeveon Clowney, which was apparently caused by a seam in the grass at NRG Stadium, is not an encouraging way to start the season. Fortunately, he will only miss a handful of weeks and is not out for the season.

The Texans only managed 10 points on offense (the other touchdown was the result of superb special teams play on a blocked punt), which is not going to win many games. I'm still not sold on new quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, but he's only the second-most important player in this offense. Please, Arian Foster, stay healthy.

Oh, and the Dynamo won last weekend as well. That's their third win in four games, but they still have more work to do if they want to make it to the MLS playoffs. 

All in all it was - relatively speaking - a good weekend for Houston sports.

(And yes, this will probably be the last time I mention the Astros or the Dynamo on this blog for awhile.)


Houston 47, Grambling 0

After an embarrassing loss to open their new stadium last week, the Cougars got back to their winning ways with an easy win over Grambling State last Saturday.

The Good: the Houston offense took advantage of a porous Tiger defense to get back on track, amassing a total of 477 yards, including 275 on the ground. Greg Ward saw some action at quarterback as well, reprising last season's role as a second threat behind center. He ended the night with one rushing touchdown and one passing touchdown. The defense, meanwhile, forced six turnovers, including a fumble returned for a touchdown late in the game.

The Bad: starting quarterback John O'Korn is still having accuracy issues. He completed 14 of 25 passes for 200 yards for only one touchdown on Saturday, and some of his passes weren't even close. Also, too many Houston drives stalled out and ended with field goals. he Cougar offense did not find the endzone at all in the second half. Quite honestly, the Cougars should have beaten this hapless squad by more than 47 points.

The Ugly: aside from their six turnovers, Grambling was flagged 15 times for 147 yards. They are not a good team. For the Cougars, the true ugliness will come on Thursday, when the Cougars travel to Provo, Utah after a short week of rest to play the same BYU Cougars that just obliterated the Longhorns in Austin.

What it Means: it's a win, and wins are good. But aside from that, this game doesn't mean much. Grambling State is one of the worst teams in all of Division 1, having won only two games in the last two seasons. The Cougars need to show that they can beat somebody other than the dregs of FCS before I'll start feeling better about their chances for success in 2014.

Southwest Airlines has a new look

It's very, um, blue.
Southwest Airlines on Monday unveiled a new logo amid a brand overhaul that includes a new look for its aircraft. The new "Heart" paint scheme will be the carrier's first new livery since it introduced its current "Canyon Blue" look in 2001.
                                                                                                                                                            photo: Southwest Airlines
                                                                                                                                                        photo: Southwest Airlines
 The Chronicle's Erin Mulvaney explains ($) that the airline's new look is intended to signal a new era for Southwest as it finishes its absorption of onetime low-cost rival Airtran and begins international service of its own:
The Texas-based carrier on Monday unveiled a new heart-themed logo that will be branded on everything from the underside of its aircraft to its in-flight magazines. Showing off the design change with a pair of freshly repainted 737 jetliners at Dallas' Love Field, Southwest's home hub, executives said the changes represent not a rebranding but a restatement of the airline's customer-friendly nature even as it embarks on a new era that includes international flights.

"It's not a new Southwest, it's an evolved Southwest," the president and CEO, Gary Kelly, said during an event at company headquarters here.

The new aircraft design is dominated by a deeper blue and includes a striped red, yellow and blue tail. The name is emblazoned on the side in a bold sans serif typeface, and the heart-shaped logo of blue, yellow and red is displayed near the door and on the belly.

Southwest, traditionally a low-cost, short-haul carrier, will introduce international flights to the Caribbean and Mexico and celebrate the end of restrictions for longer nonstop flights out of its Dallas hub in the next several weeks.

In Houston, it is funding an international hub at Hobby Airport that will allow it to offer flights to Latin America by 2016.
                                                                                                                                                        photo: Southwest Airlines
Personally, I'm not sure I like the new look. The fuselage looks bland and boring without the red underbelly, and removing the airline's name from its tailfin - were it has been since the airline's inception - seems almost blasphemous. Then there's the heart logo: yes, I get that a heart has always been part of the airline's iconography, but putting it on the airplane's belly just seems cheesy. Perhaps the new look will grow on me over time.

What's more interesting is what the look might represent for Southwest as it completes its evolution from a short-haul, regional carrier to the nation's fourth-largest carrier offering international service. Already, there is evidence that one of the things that made Southwest unique  - the so-called "Southwest Effect" - no longer exists. Does this new look signal that Southwest is about to become "just another carrier" that assigns seats and charges for bags? I shudder at the thought.

Southwest officials say that it could take as long as seven years for the entire fleet to be repainted. Along with the new paint scheme will come new branding at airports, new uniforms for flight staff, and a new marketing campaign. The new logo and look has already made it to the airline's website.